In 2001, the Memphis Grizzlies drafted an incredible young big man to build around in Pau Gasol. That marriage was obviously not meant to last, but nearly two decades later, the Grizzlies now have another opportunity to build around a potentially generational big man in Jaren Jackson Jr.
Now allow me to be completely honest: I was not very high on Jaren Jackson in the weeks leading up to the draft. Like many others, I hoped that Luka Doncic would fall to them (and for what it’s worth, I still believe he will be one of the best players from this draft class, along with my beloved Trae Young). Although many projected Jackson to be a perfect modern NBA big, I still believed that he was merely a project that was more of a great basketball player in theory rather than actual reality. There were other more “NBA ready” prospects.
But I can admit when I am wrong.
When we look back at this draft class in 10 years, there is a very real possibility that Jaren Jackson will be not only one of the best players in the class, but also in the league period. If the sky is the limit for Jackson, he could very well find himself in the stratosphere.
First, let’s address some of his questions.
When I first began to study Jackson, I found the common concerns that many people had for him to be extremely off-putting.
If Jaren Jackson is so great, then why did Tom Izzo, one of the greatest basketball coaches in NCAA history, only play him 22 minutes per game? Why wasn’t he on the court more?
Why could he not put up incredible numbers like Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton, and some of the other top players in his class if he is supposed to be as good as they are?
Before we go any farther, let’s compare Jackson’s freshman year with the freshman year of a certain NBA unicorn.
Jackson: 10.9 PTS, 5.8 REB, 1.1 AST, 3.0 BLK, 21.8 MPG
Player ? : 10.3 PTS, 6.7 REB, 1.1 AST, 2.3 BLK, 21.1 MPG
The player in question is Karl-Anthony Towns, who is unquestionably one of the best big men in the NBA today. The ironic part of this comparison is that many wondered why Towns didn’t put up the dominant numbers of Jahlil Okafor much like how many skeptics have questioned why Jackson didn’t dominate the way that Ayton and Bagley did. To be sure, the answer is simple in both cases: They simply weren’t on the court enough to have that level of impact.
However, the reasons for their individual lack of playing time are radically different. Towns played on a loaded Kentucky team that included future NBA players in their frontcourt with Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles. Jackson, on the other hand, just couldn’t stop fouling everything in sight.
Jackson may have been great in the minutes he did play, but his playing time was clearly limited often because of foul trouble (he averaged 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes). Obviously, he can’t put up 20-10 numbers when he only plays roughly 23 minutes every game. If he had, he would have definitely been the number one pick in the draft like Towns.
So should the Memphis Grizzlies be concerned that Jackson couldn’t stay on the floor in college because of foul trouble?
Essentially, it shouldn’t be problematic. Much like how high turnover numbers are a good indicator early in a point guard’s career (as I have argued here), high foul numbers can be a good indicator of the defensive ability of a young big man since it denotes a high level of aggressiveness.
The historical comparisons are kind to Jackson in this regard. Joel Embiid, who played nearly the exact same amount of minutes in his freshman year at Kansas as Jackson did at Michigan State, also had a nearly identical foul rate as Jackson. Obviously foul problems have not kept him off the court in the NBA. If you want to go back farther, Shaquille O’Neal had a similar foul rate to Jackson during his freshman year at LSU before he became one of the most dominant centers in NBA history.
Considering Jaren Jackson Jr. is still one of the youngest players in the draft at 18-years-old, the discipline to defend without fouling will almost surely come in time. And for a player with as much potential as he has (which I’ll discuss next), it will be more than worth the wait.
If you still want to make the argument that Jackson is a better player in theory rather than reality, then it’s still one heck of a theory to imagine.
Jackson has the potential to be everything a team could ever want from a modern NBA big man, from his skill and quickness that allows him to both protect the rim and guard the perimeter, to his ability to score in the paint with solid post moves as well as from the three-point line. Since he was a guard in high school before his growth spurt, he also possesses the ability to beat slower defenders off the dribble. It really seems that there is nothing that he can’t do.
The versatility of Jackson’s game almost seems unprecedented in some ways. Kevin Garnett is a name that has been thrown around, but Garnett was a cold-blooded assassin on the basketball floor the likes of which there will never be again. Karl-Anthony Towns may be a good statistical comparison for one year in college, but their games are highly different. Even if Jackson’s offense never reaches the level that it can, he will still be better defensively on day one than Towns currently is. On the negative side, Jackson doesn’t possess the incredible natural footwork and low post skills that Towns had as a rookie. No, if you’re wanting the best possible comparison for Jackson’s game, you may have to start at the very top.
(Prepares the hot take cannon)
Let’s try Anthony Davis.
Here is a comparison of the “per 40 minutes” numbers of Jackson and Davis from their freshman year of college
Jackson: 20.0 PTS, 10.6 REB, 2.0 AST, 5.5 BLK, 2.0 3P
Davis: 17.7 PTS, 13.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 5.8 BLK, 0.1 3P
It’s impressive, isn’t it?
Davis was obviously the more impactful player in college as he led Kentucky to a national championship in 2012. Nonetheless, it is striking to see how close Jackson is to him at that point in several areas—and ahead of him in several others.
To truly understand the Jackson-Davis comparison, perspective is needed. Anthony Davis was the most incredible shot-blocker I had ever seen in college basketball, seemingly capable of altering a game without scoring a single point—and Jaren Jackson had a higher block percentage than him this past year. Also, though Davis was an incredible shot-blocker and rim protector, he wasn’t quite as effective at defending the perimeter as Jackson is.
Offensively, Jackson also possesses something that Davis didn’t have at his age—a three-point shot. Although he was a good scorer in college, most of Davis’ points came from inside the paint, and he made only 4 threes during his freshman season. Jackson, on the other hand, shot just under 40% from three and made 39 threes over 35 games.
It almost seems blasphemous to say it, but it really isn’t that much of a leap to imagine Jaren Jackson becoming one of the best big men in the NBA, a perennial DPOY candidate who also has the ability to score from all three levels on the court. He very well may never get there as it takes an incredible amount of work to get to that level, and the Grizzlies have never exactly been known for their player development. Yet the potential is still there.
Patience will be key
No matter how comparable he may be to some of them, Jaren Jackson is not going to be Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett, or Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s going to be, well, Jaren Jackson. And finding out exactly what kind of player Jackson will be is going to take time.
He isn’t going to come in and be one of the best bigs in the league from day one. He may not even start ahead of JaMychal Green on opening night. However, when we look back at the 2018-19 season in a few years, we may realize that we had the chance to witness the rise of someone special, a player who helped bring the Memphis Grizzlies from an uncertain past into a bright future.